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Both Behälter and Gefäß mean "container", but is there a difference in usage or are they equivalent?

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Gefäß is restricted to movable containers which are not flexible and can contain liquids. Some examples:

  • Cages or most baskets are not called Gefäß because they cannot contain liquids.
  • Plastic bags, gourds or cardboard boxes are not called Gefäß because they are deformable.
  • Bottles, glasses, barrels, vases or drinking horns are called Gefäß.
  • Fixed tanks or lakes are not called Gefäß, as they are immovable.

Note that Gefäß can also mean vessel as in blood vessel.

Behälter can be used for any container, so every Gefäß also is a Behälter but not vice versa.

All the above is based on my perception of language as a native speaker. Especially in some exotic cases where these terms are rarely used, native speakers may disagree about the usage of these words.

  • 1
    @Grantwalzer: I do not get what you are aiming at. Untreated skulls and horns cannot be used as containers, so the question does not arise. If you somehow managed to teleport the brain out of a skull and use it as a container for some other liquid you teleport in, then I would indeed call it a Gefäß. – Wrzlprmft Sep 7 '14 at 10:04
  • I think you also cannot call a cage a Behälter. It sounds very very weird to me. – gexicide Sep 7 '14 at 12:40
  • @gexicide: I don't think you'd use the term "container" for a cage either. – celtschk Sep 7 '14 at 13:38
  • No tissue or other bones attached. Just a skull and a horn lying around. To become Gefäße they require (at least a bit of) manufacturing. Most if not all drinking horns from this search were "treated" in some way (and if they were just flattened or polished). The teleportation you came up with contradicts your definition, but it would be a Behälter anyway. – user6191 Sep 7 '14 at 15:11
  • You could of course use the skull as a Gefäß, but it still won't become a Gefäß because of that, like you could use it as a ball, and it still won't be one. Just try and find something that would normally be called a Gefäß (in the present sense), that was also not treated in any way. Lastly (and - since the rest of your definition goes hand in hand with it - most importantly), Duden uses the word hergestellt. Gefäße are hergestellt. It seems as if you were letting the word container influence your definition a bit too much – user6191 Sep 7 '14 at 15:33
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The DUDEN lists Behälter as a synonym for Gefäß. If you look at the root halten and vazzen, there is the common notion of keeping or holding something. Most of the time you could use them interchangeably: e.g. a bottle is both. If you look at the history of both terms, it seems that Gefäß is the much older term (DUDEN VOL. 7 lists a first usage of Behälter not earlier than the 15th century). It has its roots in givazi (~ vittels) or gafeteins (~ jewelery).

Behälter also is a more technical term, and is therefore used as a term in law (Verordnungen).

The German Wikipedia tries a definition

Die von der Norm getroffene Definition bedeutet, dass – im Unterschied zu beliebigen anderen Behältern – der Behälter gegenüber dem Medium, für das er konstruiert ist, dicht ist

Which translates to: all containers which are somehow impermeable in respect to the medium they contain are called Behälter, but that is artificial: A glass would be called Gefäß but not Behälter, but is impermeable for every liquid.

There is no sharp border, when to use which term.

  • 1
    That last definition may be better than you say: a drinking glass is not a Behälter, because it is not dicht, just turn the glass upside down if you don't believe me. Put a lid on the glass and you have a Behälter – Twinkles Sep 7 '14 at 7:51
  • @Twinkles yes, that's right. I thought a long timne over that. But on the other hand, they list a plastic bag (I'm thinking of shopping bags) - which is also open - as a Behälter. Even as a native speaker I find it hard to draw a line between one and the other. I am not philologist for german language. But if I were, my hypothesis would be, that Gefäß is mostly associated with traditional goods like milk, beer and so on like the root suggests (~vittels) and Behälter is only an abstraction from this "primary" use of such a container. – Thomas Junk Sep 7 '14 at 7:57
  • 1) dense and dicht in the sense of non-leaky or impermeable are false friends. 2) It times, it’s impossible for me to tell whether you are describing definitions used in norms, etc. or everyday language. 3) The important aspect on oil tanks is that they not movable, which I indeed missed. – Wrzlprmft Sep 7 '14 at 10:22
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    "restricted to X" does not mean "used for everything conforming to X", but "not used for anything not conforming to X". Therefore your Öltank example doesn't disprove the claim. – celtschk Sep 7 '14 at 13:35
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so every Gefäß also is a Behälter

Please note, that this statement is restricted to every day usage or has at least some exceptions. Consider the following sentences

Der Herr aber sprach zu ihm: Gehe hin; denn dieser ist mir ein auserwähltes Gefäß, meinen Namen zu tragen sowohl vor Nationen als Könige und Söhne Israels. (Acts of the Apostles 9, 15 / Elberfelder 1905)

Ihr Männer gleicherweise, wohnet bei ihnen nach Erkenntnis, als bei einem schwächeren Gefäße, dem weiblichen, ihnen Ehre gebend, als die auch Miterben der Gnade des Lebens sind, auf daß eure Gebete nicht verhindert werden. (1. Peter 3, 7 / Elberfelder 1905)

The word is referred to as vessel in the ASV and KJV translation. Other translations use different terms here, but the point is: there's no way to replace it by Behälter in this or a similar context.

It's not so clear with Behältnis though. Maybe because Behältnis is more abstract, i. e. it's just something and not necessarily a thing.

  • 1
    Consider adding your differentiation between Gefäß and Behälter, as it stands your post is something between a very good comment and an incomplete answer. (Otherwise state if there is another answer you agree with, and which you wanted to supplement with yours.) If you want to, you can flag this comment as "obsolete" when done. – user6191 Sep 7 '14 at 18:44
  • “there's no way to replace it by Behälter in this or a similar context.” – That depends on your definition of context: If I wrote a new text and would like to use a comparable metaphor, I would have no preference for Gefäß or Behälter. If I would, however, try to translate religious scripture or something similar, I would probably choose Gefäß, because, well, this is the preferred metaphor used in bible translations and thus easier to understand by the reader. (By the way: Most bible translations do not use the word Behälter at all – maybe becaues it does not sound archaic enough.) – Wrzlprmft Sep 7 '14 at 20:33
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Might be helpful to read, http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beh%C3%A4lter

Will probably be deleted for "not an answer" ;P

Behältnis sounds to me like an antiqued word for Behälter, wouldn't use it.

  • 1
    Incorrect, it's very low quality. – idmean Sep 6 '14 at 21:20
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    Welcome to German Language SE and thank you for your contribution. As your post may indeed answer the question it is preferable to also include the essence of what the linked pages says (why not translate the first paragraph?). Imagine they change their content or the page goes offline - your answer will not have any value then. Please edit your post to include some more details. Thank you. – Takkat Sep 6 '14 at 21:53

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